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More than 70 lawyers hired by Philly DA Larry Krasner have left. Some say the office is in disarray.

Many attorneys with just a few years of experience are being assigned to high-profile units. Some say they're not prepared.

District Attorney Larry Krasner is seen making his victory speech in the Democratic primary election on May 18, 2021. As he heads into a second term in January, his office wracked by dissent and staff turnover.
District Attorney Larry Krasner is seen making his victory speech in the Democratic primary election on May 18, 2021. As he heads into a second term in January, his office wracked by dissent and staff turnover.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

When District Attorney Larry Krasner took office in 2018, he set about traveling the country, to Ivy League law schools and historically Black universities, inviting top graduates to help fulfill his vision for a progressive prosecutor’s office.

About 70 of those recruits have already left, joining an exodus that has included both veteran prosecutors and young idealists. In all, the loss of 261 attorneys during Krasner’s first term has thrown the office — already beset by conflict with the police and judiciary, and mired in pandemic-related backlogs — into what some describe as a state of chaos.

Although the office, which employs about 340 lawyers, has been hiring to offset the losses, the churn is affecting its ability to manage its caseload, according to 19 current and former DA’s Office staffers who spoke with The Inquirer.

Jennifer Newman, who prosecuted sex crimes and domestic violence cases, quit in August after three years — reluctantly, she said. She cited a lack of institutional support and an “unsustainable” workload of more than 100 open cases.

“I got to a point where I was afraid I was going to start missing things, and that for me was unacceptable,” Newman said. “I was not going to have one of these cases slip through the cracks because of me.”

Some who have stayed described plummeting office morale.

“I joined this office for a reason. I came to Philly to work for Krasner, because I believed in what he was trying to do,” said one current staffer who is actively searching for a new job and, like some others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified out of fear of professional retribution. “I feel betrayed a lot by this office and the promises of what I thought this job was going to be.”

In an interview, Krasner acknowledged that his office has struggled to retain staff. But he said new hires have always faced a heavy workload and steep learning curve. What’s different now, he said, is the “most voracious hiring environment for lawyers that I’ve ever seen,” in which private firms are luring candidates with the promise of more than tripling their $63,000-a-year starting salaries while allowing them to work from home. He also suggested retention may have been easier in the past because, in his view, the office had hired less impressive lawyers.

He said his office has been taking steps to address “legitimate concerns about trying to do better,” including hiring a management consultant, installing new managers, and developing a new training and mentorship program.

Current and former staff say training is needed, describing a steep decline in institutional knowledge. From 2017 to 2021, the median attorney tenure declined 42%, from 5.7 years of DA’s Office experience to 3.3 years.

Nearly 60% of lawyers now on staff have joined the office just in the last four years. Of the 53 hired in 2021, about 75% were newly admitted to the bar this year.

Some who quit in Philadelphia cited crushing workloads and a lack of support. Others complained of ideological clashes, and several lamented an office climate that punished dissent, one they said started with Krasner’s top lieutenants.

Several young lawyers said they felt ill-prepared for their jobs in high-profile units, and said the staffing issues have impacted case outcomes. Nearly three-quarters of the 21,000 cases that resolved this year were either withdrawn by prosecutors or dismissed by judges, according a website maintained by the DA’s Office — 73%, compared to 36% of cases resolved in 2017.

Pinpointing the reason for those outcomes is not straightforward, especially amid pandemic-related backlogs. In a previous study on illegal gun cases, the DA’s Office found most dismissals were caused by the failure of witnesses to appear in court (52% of cases studied) or weak evidence (25% of cases).

Critics say the district attorney is to blame for that record.

“The DA’s Office is completely ill-equipped to prosecute serious cases outside a handful of prosecutors. They don’t have the experience. They don’t have the talent, and they don’t have the numbers to prosecute all the cases they need to,” said Shuaiyb Newton, a former homicide prosecutor.

Krasner said many of the cases that remain pending are likely to result in convictions. And, he added, ”I don’t accept the premise that we simply count dismissals as being some form of failure.” He said a higher rate of withdrawing cases might reflect more scrupulous work by his attorneys, compared to what he described as the win-at-all-costs tactics of his predecessors.

Several who joined the office after being inspired by Krasner’s vision for reform described “micromanagement” by unit supervisors who seemed fundamentally opposed to that vision.

On the other hand, some more experienced lawyers said they left because they no longer identified with the mission.

“He wasn’t really trying to prosecute. He was trying to indoctrinate,” said Newton, who was initially intrigued by Krasner’s pitch for more equitable justice in communities like North Philadelphia, where Newton grew up. By the time he quit in 2020, he said, he came to believe Krasner was more interested in protecting defendants than crime victims and everyday citizens. “He would hire people that didn’t think anybody belonged in jail at all. Why are you a prosecutor? He hired people who would cry after convicting someone.”

» READ MORE: The battle in Philly DA’s Office: Conviction Integrity Unit report shows rocky path to reform

Krasner said he has taken staff feedback into account. On Monday, the district attorney appointed a new chief of staff, tapping Mike Lee, who led the Diversion Unit, to fill the long-vacant role. Krasner said he plans to reshuffle a number of other supervisors in the near future, allowing different lawyers to rotate into leadership roles.

Krasner campaigned on a promise to shake up the office. In his first week, the DA fired 31 veteran prosecutors — a move he described as both necessary housekeeping and routine turnover for a new administration. Since then, 39 more lawyers with at least a decade of prosecutorial experience have left.

More upheaval followed: The juvenile and municipal court units each cycled through at least three supervisors in Krasner’s first term. The chief of homicide was also replaced last year, though the office would not say whether it was related to a highly publicized road rage incident. The DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, which had been among the largest and most active in the country with 12 attorneys, lost a third of its staff, including its supervisor and assistant supervisor.

Those who remain say critical units are in disarray, such as Major Trials, which handles many of the office’s most serious cases. Two-thirds of the lawyers in that unit, as of November, were law-school graduates admitted to the Pennsylvania bar within the last five years. The same was true for the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit, and for about one-third of lawyers in the Homicide and Non-Fatal Shootings Unit.

Chris Lynett, who was hired in 2015 and was assigned to Major Trials when he quit in 2020, said there were not enough lawyers, at times, to cover all the courtrooms.

“Major Trials used to have a core of around 10 or 12 attorneys who had significant jury trial experience,” Lynett said. “You’re going to make errors as a young attorney. You’re going to forget things. And often, unfortunately, the way you learn these things is by making mistakes in court or watching others make mistakes. And that takes time. But you don’t have that time, and you don’t have the experience of those attorneys.”

The DA last week reassigned 10 lawyers to Major Trials from the Law Division, which responds to appeals and post-conviction petitions. Krasner said the reassignments — along with a newly established unit of experienced attorneys to coach young lawyers — will keep cases on track.

» READ MORE: Two Center City robbery suspects were out on bail. Philly DA Larry Krasner said the case demonstrates flaws in the system.

Krasner also noted unprecedented job turnover amid the Great Resignation, and said prosecutors offices across the country are combating similar challenges.

“They’re all facing the same things when it comes to heavy caseloads, case backlogs and staff shortages,” said Nelson Bunn, executive director of the National District Attorney’s Association. He said the impact is not limited to progressive DA’s offices. “It’s an equal opportunity challenge.” He ascribed the trend to salaries that have not kept pace with the job market or the price of law school, and to the preference for jobs that allow remote work.

Miriam Krinsky, who heads the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, said transforming a major government institution can’t be done without some degree of upheaval. “There are short-term challenges, but in the long run it helps move the office in a different direction,” she said.

She also argued some of the tensions in the office are inherent to a more careful approach to prosecution: “We want people who are a little uncomfortable in these jobs, and are always torn by the consequences of the decisions they make.”

Inquirer news researcher Ryan W. Briggs contributed to this article.